Beyond Utopia?: Beyond Beyond Utopia
Guest Writer: Jenelle Davis

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Shown during Weizman's keynote: a “pyramid of Gaza”.
[On April 26 and 27, 2012, the Unit for Criticism partnered with the Illinois Program for Research in the Humanities for a conference, Beyond Utopia? Art, Theory, and the Coming of “Spring.” Below, Jenelle Davis, a Unit graduate affiliate from the Department of Art History, writes about the second day of the conference.]

“Beyond Beyond Utopia”

Written by Jenelle Davis (Art History)

A large crowd turned out for the second day of the “Beyond Utopia? Art Theory , and the Coming of ‘Spring’”: A conference on Aesthetics, Politics, and New Revolutionary Movements, co-organized by the Unit for Criticism & Interpretive Theory and the Illinois Program for Research in the Humanities. Lauren Goodlad, the Director of the Unit for Criticism, opened the conference with some thoughtful remarks and questions to consider on the theme of the conference.

In her introduction to the day’s first keynote speaker Eyal Weizman (Goldsmiths University), Dianne Harris, Director of the IPRH, commented on how the Utopia conference symbolizes the unique cross-disciplinary approach to research and events at the University of Illinois. Harris continued by contextualizing Weizman’s work, purporting that it engages with the larger framework of the built environment, which is usually overlooked as a powerful ideological tool.

Weizman’s work brings together several esoteric elements under the category of forensic architecture. Throughout his talk, he highlighted how international law and human rights practices have been shaped by the shift from testimonies to materialities in the deciding the outcome of court cases on war and genocide. This shift from the focus on human witness to the animated object gives rise to a new set of ethical and aesthetic questions to be considered.

Weizman began by showing images of the “pyramids of Gaza,” pictured above, a title given to the curious formation of the destroyed, three-story refugee apartment building in the Gaza Strip. The specificities and irregularities of the destruction are registered by the differences between the pyramids, a starting point for a new kind of forensic architecture which reads the histories of the buildings by dissecting layer upon layer.

The success of using objects to make an argument requires the use of an interpreter who recognizes the personified potential of objects and therefore can act as interlocutor between the object and the audience. Of course, the necessary interpreter implies the possibility for human error or, more seriously, of a bias. The result of such possibilities was seen in the case of Marc Garlasco, the expert on battle damage assessment for Human Rights Watch (HRW) from 2003-2009, and former intelligence analyst for the Pentagon. Garlasco contributed his forensic expertise to a 2009 HRW report which investigated the allegations that Israel had intentionally destroyed 15,000 civilian homes, killing at least 1,400, during a Gaza attack in 2008-2009. Several blogs were posted after the presentation of the damning HRW report which narrated the already public information that Garlasco was an avid Nazi-era memorabilia collector and as such, his forensic interpretation would be inevitably biased.

Weizman ended his talk by suggesting that perhaps instead of derailing the fetishistic nature of avid collecting, this habit might suggest an ideal characteristic for a forensic analyst to possess. Who better to interpret the language of things than a collector who already understands the powerful language of the studied object? For more information on the topic of Weizman’s talk, read his article "Forensic Architecture: Only the Criminal Can Solve the Crime," in the November/December issue of Radical Philosophy.

Weizman was able to continue his discussion by way of questions posed to him. One participant asked whether he thinks there is a longing for facticity in our society as the human rights community moves from human testimony to the object. She continued that perhaps we are looking for something that is extra-political, not the faulty human presenting contested “scientific evidence” that is no longer factual. Weizman concurred with this statement, suggesting that forensics is about the presentation of science, however the interplay between human and object is important in this dynamic, which may limit an objective interpretation.

The final two comments and questions alluded to the technologies of representation in Weizman’s research. Both inquirers suggested that the practice of forensic architecture resembled interests and methodologies of the nineteenth century, including the physiognomic role of photography, John Ruskin’s intimate detailing of the architecture in Venice, and Sherlock Holmes’ painstaking sleuthing. Weizman concluded this strain of discussion by returning to an earlier question that reached deeper into the question of ethics and interpretation. He suggests that we need to look into reorienting the discourse of human rights to take into account the tension between listening but not hearing the voice of the witness, be it human or object.

A photograph from Tahir Square, provided by Mohammed Bamyeh.
Noha Radwan (UC Davis) began the first panel with her talk “Dissent Protest and Revolution in the Egyptian Novel” that detailed the change in form and content of the Egyptian novel, up until the present day and how contemporary novels reflect the authors’ frustration with the current political system. Mohammed Bamyeh (Pittsburgh) continued the panel with a discussion of contemporary Egyptian revolutionaries and their methods. His talk, “Revolution and Enlightenment,” explained that the current revolution in Egypt includes a vast majority of people who have never voted, nor previously joined political parties or public demonstrations. This was their first time participating in a public mobilization. Additionally, in looking for a model of protest, traditional cultural modes became the rules for change. This resulted in many personal and collective creative signs of revolution.

Saba Mahmood (UC Berkeley) delivered the second keynote address of the day. In her stimulating and complex talk, “Secularism, Sexuality, and the Right to Religious Difference,” Mahmood suggested that human rights are our last utopia and that they have emerged due to a decline of nationalism. She further believes that sexuality and secularity are mutually constituted in the modern state and that we need to think about the ways that secular and religious laws collide in contemporary legal and political discourse.

The conference ended with a long-standing tradition for the Unit for Criticism, a round table discussion. Kevin Hamilton from New Media at UIUC, Amanda Ciafone from the International Studies Department at Macalester College, and graduate student in literature visiting UIUC from it's sister university K.U., Jan Vanvelk began the discussion with their reactions to the conference. Focusing on visual, theoretical and practical interpretations, each participant drew on their respective disciplines to inform their comments on the day’s presentations and the nature of utopia. Hamilton suggested we consider moments of perceptual dis-ease to highlight a need to consider the future. He offered the term “bi-associative moments” as the awareness that arises due to something jarring or disconcerting in a situation. These instances of unease that we feel and our resulting reactions to them reflect a general theme within the examination of utopia during the conference.

Although the concept of utopia might create more questions than solutions, “Beyond Utopia?” demonstrated that Thomas More’s notion from 1516 still provides an enlightening and provocative topic for discussion.


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Zsuzsa Gille said...

Dear Jenelle,
Thanks for this lucid summary. I just would add one thing that was very important for me, at least in Saba Mahmood’s talk. She argued that secularist trends did not so much eliminate the role of religion or religious laws in regulating social life but simply tended to restrict them to the private realm, specifically, for her case, to family law. This in most cases have tended to erode women’s rights. However it was also interesting to see how issues that have to do with the private sphere can occasionally mobilized for transnational political causes, thus extending the reach of religion back to the public, if now at a different social scale.


IPRH Director said...

Thanks Jenelle, for this concise overview of a wonderfully rich set of presentations. I keep thinking about Kevin Hamilton's comments about the need for moments of dis-ease and the relationship to the performance that took place during Irene Small's lecture given the previous day. Taken together, the lectures, panel discussions, and performance created a local reality that helped the audience consider anew a set of global concerns. Perhaps it was because of Irene's students' performance, but I found myself considering the two-day conference more of an "event," a more active intervention than others I've attended. Thanks to everyone for the fantastic contributions!

Dianne Harris